David Grann is the ultimate writer’s writer. The reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker has a way of discovering nuggets of an idea (the bare minimum of a pitch), and then, through intrepid and painstaking research, crafting pieces that tend to stick with readers for years.
“Many of the characters are driven by obsession,” Grann once told Nieman Storyboard. “But I’m also interested in what these characters are obsessed with, so it’s not just their obsession, it’s the object of their obsession…I’m looking for multiple elements. On one level, there is a story that is compelling, there are characters that are interesting, but also there are some intellectual stakes.”
For his upcoming book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I., Grann details the murders committed against members of the Osage Nation—which subsequently became the first case investigated by the FBI—and spent more than three years researching and reporting events that happened nearly a hundred years ago. Josh Dean similarly had been interested in writing about the Osage Nation killings, when he was informed by his agent that Grann had, in Dean’s words, “been working on this book quietly for two years.”
Dean told the Longform podcast:
I literally fell out of my chair. I admire David Grann; he is one of the best at this thing. I read his stories voraciously. I know what David Grann is doing…One, I know he is going to do an amazing job. He has a two year head-start. If it hadn’t been him…why would I [write the book]? I went into a shell and drank for six days.
While Killers of the Flower Moon will undoubtedly become a blockbuster hit one day (Imperative Entertainment paid a whopping $5 million for film rights), another of Grann’s works will debut in theaters this week. “The Lost City of Z” came to life as a New Yorker feature in 2005, and according to Grann, it was one of his rare pieces that felt incomplete as a magazine article. “It was the first piece I’d done for The New Yorker where I finished and I said, one, I’m not sick of it, and, two, there are so many more places to go. There were still doors to open,” he told Interview magazine. The article became a book, which was published in 2009, and now a film starring Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson.
Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a turn-of-the-century English explorer who disappears in a quest to prove the existence of an ancient and influential civilization in the Amazon. In reporting Fawcett’s travels, Grann journeyed to the jungles where Fawcett vanished, as well as plumbed through his diaries and life, turning what had initially been a piece about this lost civilization into an all-encompassing biography—all the better for its adaptation to screen.
It’s impossible to compose a “best of” list for Grann’s writings, so below is a primer for some of his most compelling New Yorker pieces, which includes some of his earlier (and often overlooked) work.
“The Brand ” (2004)
Grann investigates the Aryan Brotherhood, a multi-million criminal enterprise that operates within the U.S.’s prison system.
And, because the Brotherhood is far more cloistered than other gangs, it was able to operate largely with impunity for decades—and remain all but invisible to the outside world. “It is a true secret society,” Mark Hamm, a prison sociologist, told me.
“The Lost City of Z” (2005)
What really happened to Percy Fawcett, and did the lost civilization actually exist?
As the expedition was being surrounded, five team members ran toward the plane. The pilot was still in the cockpit, and the five men jumped in the cabin and told him to take off, though the plane was designed for only four passengers. As the pilot started the propeller, several Indians hurried toward the plane, aiming their bows and arrows. They grabbed onto the wings, trying to keep the plane grounded. The pilot, concerned that the plane was dangerously heavy, started to throw supplies out the doors. The plane began easing down the runway; just before the wheels lifted off, the last of the Indians let go.
Lynch watched the plane disappear, red dust from its wake swirling around him. The Indians herded the remaining team members into small boats. “Where are you taking us?” Lynch asked.
“You are our prisoners for life,” one man responded in Portuguese.
Lynch’s son looked ashen. As they floated upriver, Lynch surveyed the surroundings—the clear river filled with colorful fish, the increasingly dense thicket of vegetation. It was, he thought, the most beautiful place he had ever seen.
“The Old Man and the Gun” (2003)
A conversation with a stick-up artist who is a master escapee.
After he finished eating, he began to tell me what he called “the true story of Forrest Tucker.” He spoke for hours, and when he grew tired he offered to continue the next morning. During our conversations, which went on for several days, we always sat in the corner by the window, and after a while he would cough slightly and I would offer to buy him a drink. Each time, he followed me to the machine, as the guard watched from a distance. It was only during the last trip to the machine, when I dropped some money, that I noticed his eyes were moving over everything—the walls, the windows, the guard, the fences, the razor wire. It occurred to me that Tucker, escape artist par excellence, had been using our meetings to case the joint.
“Trial by Fire” (2009)
While writing about the conviction of Todd Willingham, Grann casts doubts on modern-day arson investigation techniques.
The fire was now considered a triple homicide, and Todd Willingham—the only person, besides the victims, known to have been in the house at the time of the blaze—became the prime suspect.
“The Squid Hunter” (2004)
Searching for the semi-mythological giant squid.
For months, he had been carefully working out our destination, studying squid migration patterns as well as satellite readings of water currents and temperatures. His plan was to go south, where he had found the paralarvae before. At the last minute, however, he changed his mind. “We’re going north,” he said. As we got back in his truck, he added, “I should warn you, there’s a bit of a cyclone coming our way.”